In today’s post, I am looking at OODA Loop, the brainchild of Col. John Boyd, a highly influential American military strategist. OODA is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. Boyd did not write any book detailing his ideas. However, he did write several papers and also gave lectures detailing his ideas. Boyd was a fighter pilot with the US Air Force. He was famously dubbed as the “40-second Boyd.” Legend goes that he could defeat any pilot who took him on in less than 40 seconds.
Francis Osinga, in his excellent book “Science, Strategy and War”, explained the OODA loop as:
OODA stands for observation, orientation, decision, action. Explained in brief, observation is sensing yourself and the world around you. The second element, orientation, is the complex set of filters of genetic heritage, cultural predispositions, personal experience, and knowledge. The third is decision, a review of alternative courses of action and the selection of the preferred course as a hypothesis to be tested. The final element is action, the testing of the decision selected by implementation. The notion of the loop, the constant repetition of the OODA cycle, is the essential connection that is repeated again and again. Put simply, Boyd advances the idea that success in war, conflict, competition even survival hinges upon the quality and tempo of the cognitive processes of leaders and their organizations.
The OODA loop is generally shown as the schematic below:
John Boyd’s final version of the OODA loop is given below:
(Boyd) was the first to observe that the common underlying mechanism involved tactics that distort the enemy’s perception of time. He identified a general category of activities to achieve this distortion, the ability to change the situation faster than the opponent could comprehend, which he called “operating inside the Observation– Orientation–Decision–Action (OODA) loop.”
Boyd wonderfully explains the idea of getting inside the opponent’s OODA loop in his paper, “Destruction and Creation.”
Destruction and Creation:
Boyd starts with explaining that we have conceptual models of the external world, the reality. We interact with reality, and we update this model based on our continuous interaction. He stated:
To comprehend and cope with our environment we develop mental patterns or concepts of meaning. The purpose of this paper is to sketch out how we destroy and create these patterns to permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment. In this sense, the discussion also literally shows why we cannot avoid this kind of activity if we intend to survive on our own terms. The activity is dialectic in nature generating both disorder and order that emerges as a changing and expanding universe of mental concepts matched to a changing and expanding universe of observed reality.
Boyd said that we are in a continuous struggle to remove or overcome physical and social environmental obstacles. This means that we have to take actions and decisions on an ongoing basis for our survival. We have to keep modifying our internal representation of reality based on new data. He called this destruction and creation, which he further detailed as analysis and synthesis. We have to use a reductive process of taking things apart, and assembling things together to gather meaning.
There are two ways in which we can develop and manipulate mental concepts to represent observed reality: We can start from a comprehensive whole and break it down to its particulars or we can start with the particulars and build towards a comprehensive whole.
Readers of this blog might see that the ideas of analysis and synthesis are very important in Systems Thinking. Boyd was an avid reader and he was able to see similar ideas in various fields and bring them all together. His sources of inspiration varied from Sun Tzu, Toyota to Kurt Godel.
Boyd continued that the acts of analysis and synthesis require verification to ensure that the newly created mental representation is appropriate.
Recalling that we use concepts or mental patterns to represent reality, it follows that the unstructuring and restructuring just shown reveals a way of changing our perception of reality. Naturally, such a notion implies that the emerging pattern of ideas and interactions must be internally consistent and match-up with reality… Over and over again this cycle of Destruction and Creation is repeated until we demonstrate internal consistency and match-up with reality.
Boyd brilliantly brings in the ideas of the great logician, mathematician, and analytic philosopher Kurt Godel. Godel in 1931 shook the world of mathematics and logic with his two phenomenal theorems – the Incompleteness Theorems. He proved that in any formal systems there will always be statements that cannot be proven within the logical structures of the system, and that any formal system cannot demonstrate its own consistency. Godel’s ideas were so powerful that the great polymath von Neumann is said to have remarked, “it’s all over!”
Boyd used ideas from Godel, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and entropy to further explain his OODA loop. Boyd explained Godel’s ideas as:
“You cannot use a system’s own workings to determine if a system is consistent or not…One cannot determine the character and nature of a system within itself. Moreover, attempts to do will lead to confusion and disorder.”
This was the great insight that Boyd had. One has to continuously stay in touch with his environment to have a consistent internal representation of reality. If the link to the environment is cut off, then the internal representation gets faulty, and the continuous destruction and creation of the internal representation is then based on faulty references.
“If I have an adversary out there, what I want to do is have the adversary fold back inside of himself where he cannot really consult the external environment he has to deal with, if I can do this then I can drive him to confusion and disorder, and bring him into paralysis.”
According to Gödel we cannot— in general—determine the consistency, hence the character or nature, of an abstract system within itself. According to Heisenberg and the Second Law of Thermodynamics any attempt to do so in the real world will expose uncertainty and generate disorder. Taken together, these three notions support the idea that any inward-oriented and continued effort to improve the match-up of concept with observed reality will only increase the degree of mismatch. Naturally, in this environment, uncertainty and disorder will increase as previously indicated by the Heisenberg Indeterminacy Principle and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, respectively. Put another way, we can expect unexplained and disturbing ambiguities, uncertainties, anomalies, or apparent inconsistencies to emerge more and more often. Furthermore, unless some kind of relief is available, we can expect confusion to increase until disorder approaches chaos— death.
Orient – the Most Important Step:
In the OODA loop, the most important step in OODA is the second O – Orient. This is the step about our mental models and internal representation of the external world. This is where all the schema reside.
The second O, orientation—as the repository of our genetic heritage, cultural tradition, and previous experiences—is the most important part of the O-O-D-A loop since it shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act.
Orientation is the schwerpunkt (center of gravity). It shapes the way we interact with the environment.
In this sense, Orientation shapes the character of present observations-orientation- decision-action loops – while these present loops shape the character of future orientation.
Chet Richards, friend of Boyd, writes about orientation:
Orientation, whether we want it to or not, exerts a strong control over what we observe. To a great extent, a person hears, as Paul Simon wrote in “The Boxer,” what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. This tendency to confirm what we already believe is not just sloppy thinking but is built into our brains (Molenberghs, Halász, Mattingley, Vanman. and Cunnington, 2012) … Strategists call the tendency to observe data that confirm our current orientations “incestuous amplification”.
OODA loop is a versatile framework to learn and understand. We already use the concept unconsciously. The knowledge about the OODA loop helps us prepare to face uncertainty in the everchanging environment. You can also see in today’s world that intentional misinformation can heavily disorient people and distort reality.
We should always stay close to the source, the gemba, to gather our data. We should keep updating our mental models, and not rely on old mental models. We should not try to find only data that corroborates our hypotheses. We should continuously update/improve our orientation. We should start learning from varying fields.
We should allow local autonomy in our organization. This allows for better adaptation since they are close to the source. The idea of not being able to adapt with a fast changing environment can also be explained by Murray Gell-Mann’s maladaptive schemata. From Osinga:
One of the most common reasons for the existence of maladaptive schemata is that they were once adaptive, but under conditions that no longer prevail. The environment has changed at a faster rate than the evolutionary process can accommodate.
In case you missed it, my last post was AQL/RQL/LTPD/OC Curve/Reliability and Confidence: